Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting

DISPLAY CONSULTING

 

Going Shopping...February 2001

Sometimes even those of us who do not watch TV very much begin to think about having a newer one. The 27" set that has served us well for the last twelve or so years is beginning to feel like it could use some younger companionship. A larger screen might be a nice added benefit.

Thus, with a bit of encouragement from my spouse, one night we ended up at a Seattle video/audio store that has the reputation of having the "latest and greatest" at competitive prices. I was especially interested in what we would find in the way of new displays -- large flat-faced CRTs, plasma panels, projection systems, and maybe even a surprise or two. The expected ones were all there. Several plasma screens were prominently displayed, one priced at $10,000 and another at $25,000 -- including surround sound speakers! Wow... Certainly beyond my budget! Once past these clearly non-consumer products, most of the large-screen showroom was occupied by rear-projection systems using conventional CRTs. The prices were in the more comfortable range of $1,500 to $3,000.

In the adjoining room, we found the direct-view televisions. The ones with the larger screens (32" to 36") appeared to be grouped into two categories, "conventional" and "digital." This interesting terminology came to light as I listened to several salesmen interact with other shoppers. As I came to learn, "conventional" means regular old-fashioned NTSC television, and "digital" means everything that costs more than that. Just from the way these words were spoken, there was the clear implication that "digital" is new and good and everything else is not worthy of serious consideration.

The typical customer (mostly husband-wife combinations) vs. salesperson dialogue went something like this: "Can you tell us what the difference is between the large-screen sets on the left and the ones on the right that have the sharper picture?" "Well, of course, the ones on the left are conventional analog sets and the ones on the right are digital high-definition sets." "Oh, I see. But why are there blank areas at the top and bottom of the picture on that set?" "Oh, that's because that set is displaying the new wide-screen format." "But that sure makes the picture seem smaller. By the way, could you show us a regular program on that set over there instead of the promo-material for Channel 5 that is playing now?" "Well, unfortunately, no. There are no high-definition programs being broadcast right now. If you come back tomorrow at 6:00 pm we can show you the news from Channel 4 and 5 broadcast in high-definition." "Will there be more programs soon?" "Oh, yes, certainly." "So you recommend that we get one of these sets now?" "Of course. You would be buying the latest digital technology." "But why are the prices so much higher? The regular sets are all less than $1,000 while the digital ones are around $4,000." "Well, folks, that's the price of the newest technology."

In every customer-salesperson encounter I observed, the final result was, "OK, thanks, I think we'll go home and think about this some more." I could see the confusion and frustration on the customers' faces as they left the store. For perhaps different reasons, my conclusion was the same. The conventional large-screen sets didn't look all that good because the scan-lines were clearly evident. And the "digital" sets were just as clearly too expensive.

Reviewing the specifications attached to each of these "digital" sets, I could see that the manufacturers had taken many and varied paths to higher definition. For example, it was clear that some of these expensive sets would still require a converter box to accept over-the-air HDTV broadcasts. As a potentially serious buyer, I too ended up frustrated because I was hoping to find something that made optimum use of today's NTSC signal, could eventually be adequate for watching HDTV, but didn't carry a $4,000 price tag. There just didn't seem to be anything like that available.

A few weeks later I was having a pleasant lunch-time discussion with Dave Eccles, VP of the Sony Engineering Center in San Diego and Seminar Chair for the SID 2001 Symposium. Among other topics, I recounted my television shopping experience and expressed my frustration that no one was making a TV set that would optimize the picture quality of existing broadcast sources such as NTSC at an affordable price, he interrupted me in mid-complaint with a simple, "Sony makes such a set." "What?" "Sure we make a set that does exactly what you want, and I recently saw a local newspaper ad for it for $1995." "Well, that's still a little expensive but sure better than $4,000." And after some more discussion, a look at a faxed spec sheet from Dave's assistant Linda, and a return trip to the video store (where the set was being featured at the special price of $1849), I have to agree that this set accomplishes the objectives that I was seeking. Basically, it uses a sophisticated form of line-doubling that not only nearly eliminates the visible scan lines but also improves horizontal resolution. The results are impressive.

For those of us in the display community, the current confusing standards that we call HDTV, the lack of enthusiasm among broadcasters and cable companies to use so much bandwidth and incur extra expense for an improvement that may not increase advertising revenue, and the resistance among consumers to pay such high prices to acquire this difficult-to-pin-down improvement is creating an unfortunate slow-down in the growth of the latest display technologies. Incompatibility with today's broadcasts, ultimate picture quality that demands a too-high price, and a confusing array of choices -- what more can we do to scare away buyers and make this transition difficult?

However, I have a suggestion. While we wait for all this to eventually get sorted out, let's optimize our displays and video products for DVD players, digital satellite broadcasts, the newer versions of digital cable carrying conventional NTSC-like signals, and even for over-the-air analog broadcasts as, for example, Sony has done. Then, as more products that can do this come to market, prices will most assuredly drop further into the mainstream-affordable range. Then, with customer needs adequately met and with new products incorporating the latest display technologies rolling onto showroom floors and into customers' homes, we can afford to wait while the government regulators, the broadcasters, and the cable companies take a few more years to sort it all out.

I would be interested to hear about your own television shopping experiences. You can reach me by e-mail at Email or president@sid.org, by FAX at 425-557-8983, by phone at 425-557-8850, or by mail at 22513 SE 47th Place, Sammamish, WA 98075.

 

Aris Silzars is President of SID and lives on a hilltop overlooking Issaquah, WA.